Detention without trial in John Vorster Square

1968 – 1997

South African History Archive (SAHA)

Between 1960 and 1990, successive National Party governments in apartheid South Africa relied extensively on detention without trial as a weapon to combat political opposition, growing resistance and insurrection. 

Following the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the subsequent banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC), and the declaration of a partial state of emergency, Prime Minister HF Verwoerd appointed BJ Vorster as the Minister of Justice. 

Balthazar Johannes [Afrikaans equivalent to John] Vorster, who would later replace Verwoerd as Prime Minister, was a “verkrampte” – a hardline Afrikaner nationalist – who warned, 

‘… the breakdown of law and order would not be tolerated under any circumstances whatsoever’. 

The state of emergency lasted 5 months, resulting in over 11500 detentions. Vorster quickly tightened South Africa’s security policies, instituting a virtual zero-tolerance approach to any resistance against the state and ensuring that the Security Branch of the South African Police acquired formidable powers. 

The Security Branch of the South African Police had originally been established in the late 1940s in direct response to activities of the then still legal South African Communist Party (SACP). In keeping with widespread anti-communist sentiment in the wake of World War 2, the Security Branch was tasked with keeping tabs on communists, black nationalists and so-called ‘radical’ organisations. 

Under BJ Vorster’s watch, they grew to become the ‘mad forces’, feared across the country.